Finding purpose in the Birrarung.

For most Victorians, 2021 was our annus horribilis, a year we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemy. My own year was shaping up to be no exception.

Then one afternoon in August, very soon after the sixth lockdown was enforced, everything turned around—with thanks to the Birrarung River.

As an ocean lover and pool swimmer, I’d always relied on the water to drown my sorrows. With the pools closed and the beaches off-limits, even an icy cold, seemingly dirty and unsafe river would do.

I’d arranged to meet Katie and Kimi down at Deep Rock for my induction. I disrobed and discarded my thongs on the stone steps before stepping down into the murky-brown water. It was just eight degrees. What the hell was I thinking?!

I stepped tentatively forward up to my waist and took a gentle swan-dive to submerge my body up to my chin. I let out a few uncontrollable expletives which reverberated across the water.

‘Breathe out. Breaststroke is best. Don’t put your head in. After a minute or so your body will acclimatise and you’ll start to love it,’ Katie assured me as she swam alongside.

I frog-kicked my way through the water a little fearful of the creatures lurking beneath. My hands and feet were turning numb and I was almost hyperventilating.

The words ‘the only way out is through’ were playing on repeat in my head.

Soon my breath became more even and I could start to observe the magnificence of this sacred place. The stunning light dancing on the fifty-metre-high cliff. The gum trees leaning precariously out of the muddy banks. The two pure-white snow-geese scavenging for insects.

Ten minutes later I returned to the steps and climbed out. My whole body was lobster-like, red and tingling from head to toe. I felt alive, euphoric and a little bit proud of myself.

But there was another feeling creeping in too. For the first time, I understood what it feels like to be intimate with nature, to be a part of her, not apart from her. It’s what Thich Naht Hanh, the Vietnamese monk, called ‘inter-being’.

You carry Mother Earth within you. She is not outside of you. Mother Earth is not just your environment. In that insight of inter-being, it is possible to have real communication with the Earth, which is the highest form of prayer. 

Today, more than two hundred swims later, I’m even more in love with my river home. Most mornings I’m up before dawn peddling my way down to Deep Rock to join my Yarra Yabby friends to swim.

And it’s catching on. The Yabbies have been featured on the ABC TV News and in the Guardian. As a result, we’ve had a steady flow of newbies turning up. And now I’m inducting them, just as Katie had once inducted me.

It’s been an apprenticeship with my greatest teacher. And I’m now starting to incorporate lessons from the river into my own teaching and writing. 

I haven’t been blogging for a few months because I was all out of words on how to find your purpose. And my book, The Purpose Project says it all anyway.

Since that very first river swim, I’ve come to believe that perhaps you don’t find your purpose, it finds you. And maybe, being a little bit courageous and a whole lotta crazy, is the way.

Come swim with me. I dare you. Any questions? Hit reply and ask.

Me at Deep Rock before a swim. Coat by Red Original and highly recommended.

Here’s a little poem about how the Birrarung and I found each other.

River Home by Carolyn Tate

I’d strolled beside you, looked longingly at you, wondered about you for years
but I’d never truly known you.
Not like my lover or my mother.
All along I ignored your calls to become one with you.
One day I was hurting so much I turned to you for comfort.
I didn’t know where else to go.
Soon I was submerged in you.
Even at 8° Celsius, you welcomed me in.
‘Finally,’ you whispered.
‘You are here and we are one, and our healing can begin.’
And every day I return so that we might breathe life into each other.

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land I live on and the river I swim in, the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung and Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation. I pay my respects to Elder’s past, present and future. I acknowledge that these lands have never been ceded.